And the Library Said: “Thou Shalt Learn to DO Full References But We Will Not Allow You to Search By Them”

OU Library guidance to students on citations for journal articles reads as follows:


Using this reference I should be able to run a pretty good known item search – or not, as the case may be?


So where does the full reference  – Journal, for example – help exactly? On Google, maybe… (Actually, the one search may search all tuples in different fields – so the title as well as a the journal title – and generate retrieval/ranking factors based on that?)

References and search contexts are complementary  – for a reference to be effective,it needs to work with your search context, which typically means the user interface of your search system  – for a specific known item reference this typically means the (hidden away) advanced search interface.

So I wonder: whilst we penalise students from not using full, formal references (even though they often provide enough of a reference to find the item on Google), the officially provided search tools don’t let you use the information in the formal reference in a structured way to retrieve and hopefully access (rather than  discover – the reference is the discovery component) the desired item?

Or am I reading the above search UI incorrectly…?

PS in terms of teaching material design, and referencing the above citation example, erm….?


Because of course I’m not searching for a Journal that has something to do with Frodo Baggins – I’m searching for an article

PPS I’m also finding more and more that the subscription journal content I want to access is from journals that the OU Library doesn’t subscribe to. I’m not sure how many of the journals it does subscribe to that are bundled are never accessed (the data should reveal that)? So I wonder – as academics (and maybe students), should we instead be given a budget code we could use to buy the articles we want? And for articles used by students in courses, get a ‘site license” for some articles?

Now what was the URL of that pirated academic content site someone from the library told me about again…?

PS from the Library – don’s use the reference – just bung the title in the search onebox like you would do on a web search engine..


Hmm… but if I have a full reference, I should be able to run a search that returns just a single result, for exactly the item I want? Or maybe returns links to a few different instances (from different suppliers) of just that resource? But then – which is the preferred one (the Library search ranks different suppliers of the same work according to what algorithm?)

Or perhaps the library isn’t really about supporting know item retrieval – it’s about supporting serendipity and the serendipitous discovery of related items? (Though that begs the question about how the related item list is algorithmically generated?)

Or maybe ease of use has won out – and running a scruffy search then filtering down by facet gives a good chance of effective retrieval with an element of serendipity around similar resources?

(Desperately tries to remember all the arguments libraries used to make against one box searching…)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “And the Library Said: “Thou Shalt Learn to DO Full References But We Will Not Allow You to Search By Them””

  1. I can see an argument for some info about the journal being in the reference, as this might help the reader evaluate the level and quality of the reference. For instance, a Nature paper vs an obscure journal – knowing a reference is in Nature perhaps indicates to me (personally) that the paper might be of wider interest and perhaps significance to the field. Or I may be able to spot that a paper will be easily available to me or not (I know some journal names in my field which are open access, for instance, and I may be more motivated to check out references in those than in trying to secure access to paywalled ones). In my long ago PhD days, I certainly made assumptions, rightly or wrongly, about matters like this when I checked reference lists and as I got to know the publishers, journals and conferences in my (technical) field… There might be a case for more useful metadata though! For instance, a [OA] tag would be jolly useful to me these days as I sit outside academia.

    1. @Laura Agreed, the journal should be in the reference. But on the surface of it, the Library search tool doesn’t let me use the Journal as part of the known item search (unless as Leon maybe suggests, “Title” is used as an overloaded term to refer to both an article title and a journal title (and maybe a special issues title, and a section title too?!)
      The search page maybe offers journal title facets when I get the search results, but then it’s forcing me to decompose the reference into a set of discrete filter operations I have to apply myself.

  2. After a bit of experimenting, it appears that to search the OU Library for a particular journal, you need to put the name of the journal in the “in the title” field, even though it’s not actually part of what I’d consider to be the paper’s title.

    If you just want to look up a particular journal item, though, it’s often easiest to simply paste the complete citation into the “simple search” box and let the search engine do the hard work of matching the query to the various fields.

    1. @Leon – okay, so next time I have to do a formal ref that has a slightly different style for the Title and Journal, I should style the Journal using the Title styling to emphasise that’s how to search on it?

      I’d suggest there’s an “impedance mismatch” between referencing styles and search tools. It’s confusing at best, demonstrably wrong at worst. And it sucks.

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